Am I on the right Mastodon instance?
I paid almost no attention to which Mastodon instance I joined a week or two ago — after all it doesn’t matter ‘cos it’s federated, right?
When I finally looked at my home server’s directory I found around 200 accounts (only 20 appear publicly; the others didn’t opt in). But 20, 200, 20,000, so what? After all, you can follow anyone, anywhere — what difference does your local instance’s population make?
As far as I can work out, quite a bit: the other users on your instance create its collective intelligence — the nearest thing you have to a content discovery algorithm.
the other users on your instance create its collective intelligence — the nearest thing you have to a content discovery algorithm
To be clear: I turned off Twitter’s algorithm whenever they switched it on behind my back, and you won’t find many positive vibes in the resources I’ve Hubbed tagged #algorithm. TL:DR; I like reverse chrono feeds of content from people I choose.
But newcomers to any platform need some way of discovering useful content and accounts to follow, and Mastodon’s freetext search is limited (it’s a feature, not a bug). Apart from hashtags, that leaves your server’s Local and Federated timelines as primary discovery channels when you’re getting started. Both are defined by the users of your instance. If none of your instance’s users follow my Uncle Harry, his content won’t show up in either.
how can I tell what I’m not seeing?
So have I joined an echo chamber, and am seeing only a skewed fraction of Mastodon’s content? I just got here and I’m already feeling FOMO! The key question is this: how can I tell what I’m not seeing simply because the other 194 users on my instance haven’t followed enough people? Is there any way of seeing how much of the Fediverse is theoretically available to you from any given instance?
I decided to find out.
Follow the crowd?
The easy way around this is to join the instance where your friends already are. Enter Debirdify, which shows you where your Twitter network has #migrated to:
I suspect most people will see something similar: a power law distribution, dominated by mastodon.social. And if it does make sense to go where your friends are, the dominance of mastodon.social can only grow.
How would mastodon.social be any different from Twitter?
Again, is this a bad thing? After all, mastodon.social’s local and federated timelines are presumably rich and varied. However, how does this fit with the “Small is Beautiful” philosophy of the Fediverse in general: how personal can content moderation be on a million-account server, and how could such a server provide a community garden of likeminded souls? How, in other words, would it be any different from Twitter?
Join your nearest bubble?
So maybe I should have migrated as soon as eupolicy.social, the Mastodon instance for the EU policy bubble, appeared a couple of days after I signed up? After all, it’s still relatively small (~720 accounts as I write this, up from 650 three days ago), but my EU-oriented Twitter network has clearly flocked there: it appears in 2nd & 3rd place in the above graphs.
But I hesitated. Back in the days before social networks morphed into social media*, I hoped we could use online networks to break down the barriers separating EU politics from national and regional conversations. While this has happened a bit, in the main the Brussels Bubble simply went online and continued talking amongst themselves:
The EU Institutions could have chosen a different path, and not entirely subcontracted the conversation about Europe’s future to US-owned, Russian-manipulated, profit-driven social media platforms..
- From #EP2009 to #EP2019: a lost decade?
I wasn’t sure that the entire Brussels Bubble joining the same Mastodon instance would be any different: after all, it’s local timeline would literally be the Brussels Bubble’s Mastodon feed.
Noone sees Twitter’s firehose either
As they gently pointed out to me, Twitter newcomers don’t see the Twitter firehose either — in fact, noone ever does. You will always see a subset. The question is: who chooses that subset for you?
You will always see a subset. Who chooses it for you?
Twitter uses its algorithm. On Mastodon, it’s your fellow users on the same instance who do that for you, by sharing the feed of all the people they follow. Clearly they will guide you to content matching the community’s theme of interest, so it helps to choose the right instance. But that doesn’t necessarily make any given instance a filter bubble (131 resources).
However, the risk remains in theory. I went looking for tools to help me visualise any instance’s “footprint” on the Fediverse, or some sort of “echo chamber index”, but didn’t find anything I was able to interpret.
But given that massive instances provide completely unmediated firehoses, I still think exploring a smaller instance is a better place to get started.
Pull content in, rather than building bridges out
Secondly, it should be very easy for eupolicy.social to avoid creating a Brussels Bubble within the Fediverse.
In the past I spent a lot of time exploring how us denizens of the Brussels Bubble could outreach to national conversations online. In the Fediverse, that’s upside down: rather than building bridges outwards, we can pull national conversations into the Bubble, simply by following the right people.
Imagine if an EU environmental regulation policy geek based on eupolicy.social followed 50 national environmental regulation experts. Their content would appear in eupolicy.social’s federated timeline, becoming available to everyone in the Brussels Bubble. Interacting with that content, moreover, would send the EU policy dialogue back outwards.
As always, bridges are built with people. You’d think I wouldn’t have lost sight of that, given this post from 2010, but there you are ;)
As for me, I’m giving my current server a few months to see if and how it evolves, and am sending a few dollars to support its sister instance, which is buckling. You should consider doing the same. Free speech ain’t free.
(*) See The Age of Social Media Is Ending for a recent account of the evolution of social networking into social media, or see how I put it back in 2016 as the evolution from social media (social as adjective) to social media, where the emphasis is on the noun. back
PS This is the second post I’ve written recently about my onboarding experience in Mastodon. See also:
Welcome to the Fediverse, starry-eyed noob (TwitterMigration, day 3)
I discovered the Fediverse as I kicked MyHub.ai’s shiny new tyres in early 2020, and I’m kicking myself now for not…
PPS I’m (for now) @firstname.lastname@example.org.